Sanford Health and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced a program Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., that will provide pharmacogenetic testing to U.S. veterans at no cost to veterans or taxpayers.

As part of an innovative partnership to improve patient care and lower costs related to adverse reactions to medications, the donor-funded program will initially enroll cancer survivors. Eventually, it will expand to up to 250,000 U.S. veterans at 125 sites by 2022. It launches this year at a pilot site in Durham, North Carolina.

The testing program, PHASeR (Pharmacogenomics Action for Cancer Survivorship), is funded by a $25 million gift from philanthropist Denny Sanford and a matching fundraising effort from Sanford Health. The test can help determine which medications will be most effective for patients, improving access to appropriate treatments and reducing adverse drug reactions, which research from the National Institutes of Health shows costs up to $30 billion per year.

“The pharmacogenetic testing that we are going to be using as a result of Mr. Sanford’s generosity is critical for our nation’s veterans,” Veterans Administration Secretary Robert Wilkie told a full room during a news conference March 12 at The National Press Club.

“We can use what we learn with this research to best treat all veterans, 9.5 million, who receive their care through the VA.”

‘Natural way … to give back’

Sanford Health President and CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft lauded the South Dakota-based health care system’s partnership with the VA. “Bringing public and private entities together is a gauntlet, and we need to provide trust. Leadership at the VA made promises and kept them, and so did Sanford Health. We can do it together.”

Krabbenhoft also gave credit to Denny Sanford for making the partnership and many endeavors at Sanford Health possible with nearly $1 billion in donations and a desire to do something significant. “Thank God a living and walking legend is sitting next to me today,” he said.

“We will be forever grateful for what you’ve done, and that will be your legacy,” Krabbenhoft told Sanford.

Veterans are important to Sanford Health, Krabbenhoft emphasized, and to Denny Sanford, who spent eight years in the Air Reserves. “We recognize that our patients who are veterans are coming to us with something special on their mind and in their experiences,” Krabbenhoft said.

“This is a natural way for all of us at Sanford Health to give back.”

Offering veterans advanced health care

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, a veterans advocate, also expressed gratitude to the VA, Denny Sanford and Sanford Health.  “We should honor and respect our veterans,” he said, noting that this program helps fulfill a promise for giving veterans the best health care.

Deepak Voora, M.D., of the Duke University School of Medicine will direct the PHASeR Program.

“As a physician, it’s hard to predict exactly how a patient will respond to a medicine,” Voora said. But this pharmacogenetic testing program can change that by indicating how patients might respond to medications before they even take them.

“Until now, this type of specialized testing has been largely out of reach for our veterans,” he said.

Veterans will access the test at their local VA facility, and Sanford Health will process the tests at its South Dakota-based Imagenetics facility. Then the patient’s physician will receive the test results to help with their clinical decision-making for a variety of pharmaceutical treatments, including pain management, mental health issues and cardiovascular diseases.

Sanford Imagenetics began in 2014 thanks to a $125 million gift from Denny Sanford. More than 90 percent of patients who have had pharmacogenetic testing have been found to carry a genetic change that could affect medication selection or dosing. Test results get shared with physicians through the electronic medical record to ensure efficiency and accuracy in choosing treatments.

The PHASeR program also will eventually support genetic counseling for patients.

Learn more about PHASeR and genetic testing for veterans.

This story will be updated throughout the week.

Jacqueline Palfy is a senior media relations specialist with Sanford Health. She has nearly 20 years of journalism experience as both a writer and an editor. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at 605-366-2432 or